Dennis Hopper, 74, an actor and director whose low-budget biker movie "Easy Rider" made an unexpected fortune by exploring the late 1960s counterculture, and who changed Hollywood by helping open doors to younger directors such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, died Saturday at his home in Venice, Calif.
Hopper, who enjoyed a career resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s playing alcoholics and compelling psychopaths in films including "Hoosiers," "Blue Velvet" and "Speed," got a cancer diagnosis last year.
"Easy Rider," released in 1969, was often called a generational marker, a film set to a pulsating rock soundtrack and filled with hallucinogenic imagery meant to evoke the rebellious youth counterculture. As the director, co-star and co-screenwriter of "Easy Rider," Hopper called the film his "state of the union message" about a country on the brink of self-destruction because of the Vietnam War, political assassination, prejudice, intolerance and greed. He, actor Peter Fonda and writer Terry Southern shared an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
Independently financed, "Easy Rider" cost less than $500,000 to make and grossed tens of millions of dollars. This windfall astonished executives at many Hollywood studios, which were losing lots of money after years of making flops.
The economic success of "Easy Rider" "signaled a sea change in Hollywood, causing studio chiefs to embrace the new 'youth audience' and offer employment to other young, even untried, filmmakers," said film critic and historian Leonard Maltin.
"Easy Rider" was credited with helping usher in the "New Hollywood" of the 1970s with the rise of younger directors including Spielberg, Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich.
Hopper was a first-time director when he made "Easy Rider." He had started his movie career with promise, appearing opposite James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956). But his reputation for substance abuse and angering veteran directors had caused acting offers to dry up at major studios.
Hopper's drug habit and other personal problems made it nearly impossible for him to duplicate the success of "Easy Rider."
In 1984, he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital after experiencing a violent hallucination.
Hopper described this as the lowest point in his life. He said he stopped hard drugs and drinking and decided to channel his "compulsive" personality in other directions, namely work. He earned an Academy Award nomination for his supporting role as an alcoholic coach in the basketball drama "Hoosiers" (1986) opposite Gene Hackman and directed the police drama "Colors" (1988) starring Sean Penn and Robert Duvall.
Dennis Lee Hopper was born May 17, 1936, in Dodge City, Kan., where his father was a railroad postal worker. He grew up in San Diego, became an apprentice at the La Jolla Playhouse and left for Hollywood with the encouragement of film actress Dorothy McGuire, whom he met at the theater.
In January, while in cancer treatment, he filed for divorce from his wife of 14 years, actress Victoria Duffy. Survivors include three daughters and one son.